Walter Max Ulyate
Sisulu (1912 - 2003) was born in Engcobo in the Transkei.
mother Alice Sisulu was a domestic worker and his
father, Victor Dickenson, was the son of a white
foreman who came to his village to supervise black
Sisulu and his elder sister Rosabella were
brought up in Xhosa society in Ngcobo, Transkei, by
his mother, his uncle Dyantyi Hlakula (who was the
headman of the village) and his grandparents.
At 14 Sisulu left mission school to work.
Between 1928 and 1940 he worked in a range of jobs:
as a delivery man for a dairy; in the masonry and
carpentry department, then as a miner, of the Rose
Deep Mine in Germiston, Johannesburg; as a domestic;
as a baker for Premier Biscuits; as a paint mixer
for Herbert Evans in Johannesburg; as a packer for a
tobacconist; as a part-time teller at the Union Bank
of South Africa, and after 1938 as an advertising
salesperson and real estate agent.
Sisulu joined the ANC in 1940, the same year
that A.B. Xuma, also from Engcobo, assumed the
position of President General of the African
national Congress (ANC).
In 1944, together with Oliver Tambo and
Sisulu founded the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) and
became its first national secretary.
As the ANC grew after the great African miners,
strike of 1946, Sisulu grew too. In 1949 he was
elected the first full-time Secretary-General of the
Sisulu began to study and write, to plan mass
campaigns and to formulate strategies. He was a
leader of the Defiance Campaign in 1952 and together
with Nanabhai (Nana Sita), President of the
Transvaal Indian Congress, led the first batch of
African, Coloured and Indian defiers in breaking the
law by entering Boksburg Location without a permit.
In 1953, Sisulu was the guest of the World
Federation of Democratic Youth to its third World
Youth Festival in Bucharest, Rumania.
Sisulu was most impressed with what he
saw in the socialist countries, the
highlight of which was his visit to the
Soviet Union. Being of working class origin
and a member of the most oppressed
nationality, the Soviet visit was an
unforgettable experience. He was invited to
speak over Radio Moscow.
On his way back Sisulu stopped over in
London where he immediately set about
meeting political leaders, both British and
from other parts of Africa. He addressed a
rally on South Africa in the Holborn Town
Hall. On his return to South Africa Sisulu
was enthusiastically received by a series of
receptions and report-back meetings called
by the South African Society for Peace and
Friendship with the Soviet Union. Heavily
armed police raided these meetings and made
He published a book on African
nationalism commissioned by the government
of India in 1954. In the 1950s and early
1960s he also wrote numerous articles for
New Age, the Guardian and Liberation.
Sisulu was one of the accused in the
Treason Trial in 1956. In 1960, during the
State of Emergency, he was detained without
trial. The next year he faced prosecution
twice. Sisulu was arrested six times in 1962
and placed under 13-hour house arrest on 26
October 1962 and under 24-hour house arrest
on 3 April 1963.
At the Rivonia Trial, Sisulu was the
main defence witness and was subjected to
fierce attack from the prosecutor, Percy
Yutar. Sisulu told him: "I wish you were an
African. Then you would know."
Sisulu was charged with sabotage and
other offences in the Rivonia Trial and on
14 June 1964 was sentenced, along with Ahmed
Kathrada, Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki,
Raymond Mhlaba, Andrew Mlangeni and Elias
Motsoaledi, to life imprisonment on
Robben Island. Dennis Goldberg was the only
white person found guilty and was sentenced
to life imprisonment in a white prison in
was released from prison on 25 years later,
on 15 October 1989. He was ANC elected
Deputy President in 1991. Sisulu's and his
wife Albertina have five natural children
and four adopted children.
Sisulu died at his home in
Linden, Johannesburg on 5 May 2003. The
government accorded Sisulu a Special
Official Funeral which was held on 17 May.